The 31 best movies of 1994

From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1995). — J.R.

satantango-furniture1

Many friends and colleagues have been moaning about what a bad year 1994 was for movies, but I disagree. The main issue, I think, isn’t so much how we feel about the same movies — though there are a few differences there, including in some cases where and when we happened to see them — as it is what we saw. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Chicago, you had loads of terrific movies to see last year, new as well as old, and if you didn’t see very many of them, it’s possible that you were looking in the wrong places — where the mass media was telling you to look. Because of their running times, my two favorite films, the seven-hour Satantango and the nearly 26-hour The Second Heimat, received only limited exposure, yet I refuse to accept the standard alibi of most critics who neglected to see them — that they were too difficult or esoteric for the general public. I found them easier to sit through and vastly more involving and pleasurable than such overhyped and overattended European monoliths as Germinal and Queen Margot, which to the best of my knowledge gave little enjoyment to most people.… Read more »

Doing the CALIFORNIA SPLIT

From Stop Smiling No. 35 (its gambling issue), June 2008.  California Split is showing this weekend (August 29, 2014) in its original version at the Telluride Film Festival, as one of the selections of Kim Morgan and Guy Maddin. — J.R.

“Trusting to luck means listening to voices,” Jean-Luc Godard reportedly said at some point in the mid-1960s. This has always struck me as being one of his more obscure aphorisms, and one that even seems to border on the mystical. Yet the minute one starts to apply it to Robert Altman’s California Split, released in 1974 —- a free-form comedy about the friendship that develops and then plays itself out between two compulsive gamblers, Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal), and the first movie ever to use an eight-track mixer — it starts to make some weird kind of sense.

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What’s an eight-track mixer? According to the maestro of overlapping dialogue himself, speaking in David Thompson’s Altman on Altman (Faber and Faber, 2006), this is a system known as Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks developed by Jim Webb, and it grew directly out of Altman’s ongoing efforts to make on-screen dialogue sound more real. Sound mixers would frequently complain that some actors wouldn’t speak loudly enough and Altman would counter that this was a recording problem, not a performance problem involving the actors’ deliveries.… Read more »

Luck of the Draw [THE SAME RIVER TWICE & STEVIE]

From the Chicago Reader, March 28, 2003. I was shocked learn on January 30, 2010 about the freakish and accidental death of Karen Schmeer, the gifted editor of The Same River Twice as well as many of Errol Morris’s films (including my favorite, Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control), in New York City, when she was hit by a car speeding away from a drugstore robbery — J.R.

The Same River Twice **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Robb Moss.

Stevie **** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Steve James.

The first Chicago International Doc Film Festival is drawing to a close this weekend. Critics tend to make assumptions about the State of Cinema as if that were a knowable entity, generalizing on the basis of the few crumbs of pie the film industry and the media toss us. But we’re forced to face the inadequacy of those assumptions when something like this documentary festival demonstrates that the pie is a lot larger than we thought.

Two powerful documentaries screening this week — The Same River Twice, showing as part of the festival on Sunday at Facets Cinematheque, and Stevie, starting a regular run at Landmark’s Century Centre — make an instructive pair.… Read more »

PLACING MOVIES, Part 5: Inside and Outside the Movie Theater (Introduction)

This is the Introduction to the fifth section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R.

PlacingMovies

From a journalistic standpoint, what movies are about is always important, but the roles that should be played by content in criticism are not always easy to determine. Ever since I started writing regularly for the Chicago Reader in 1987, my principal professional safety net — what helps to guarantee that I’ll remain interested in my work on a weekly basis, even if the movies of a given week are not interesting — is my option of writing about the subject matter of certain films. This almost invariably involves a certain amount of short-term research, because even if I already know the subject fairly well, a refresher course in certain specifics is generally necessary. (A good example of this would be the reading and listening I had to do in order to nail down many of my facts and examples for “Bird Watching,” in spite — or should I say because?… Read more »

Mann of the West

From the June 5, 2002 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

The Naked Spur

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Anthony Mann

Written by Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom

With James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, and Millard Mitchell.

Man of the West

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Anthony Mann

Written by Reginald Rose

With Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord, John Dehmer, Royal Dano, and Robert Wilke.

Q: What is the starting point for The Naked Spur?

A: We were in magnificent countryside — in Durango — and everything lent itself to improvisation. I never understood why almost all westerns are shot in desert landscapes! John Ford, for example, adores Monument Valley, but I know Monument Valley very well and it’s not the whole west. In fact, the desert represents only one part of the American west. I wanted to show the mountains, the waterfalls, the forested areas, the snowy summits — in short to rediscover the whole Daniel Boone atmosphere: the characters emerge more fully from such an environment. In that sense the shooting of The Naked Spur gave me some genuine satisfaction. –Anthony Mann in a 1967 interview

This seems to be landscape week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with Abbas Kiarostami’s sublime Where Is the Friend’s House?Read more »

Five Key Moments

Here are five more of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007).  – J.R.

Scene

1957 / Paths of Glory – Timothy Carey kills a cockroach.

U.S. Director: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey.

Why It’s Key: A quintessential character actor achieves his apotheosis when his character kills a bug.

To cover up his vain blunders, a French general (George Macready) in World War I orders three of his soldiers (Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, Timothy Carey), chosen almost at random, to be court-martialed and then shot by a firing squad for dereliction of duty, as an example to their fellow soldiers. When their last meal is brought to them, they can mainly only talk desperately about futile plans for escape and the hopelessness of their plight. Then Corporal Paris (Meeker) looks down at a cockroach crawling across the table and says, “See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we’ll be dead and it’ll be alive. It’ll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I’ll be nothing, and it’ll be alive.” Ferrol smashes the cockroach with his fist and says, almost dreamily, “Now you got the edge on him.”

We’re apt to laugh at the absurdism and grotesquerie of the moment — especially Timothy Carey’s deadpan delivery, as if he had a mouthful of mush and was soft-pedaling the phrase like Lester Young on his tenor sax.… Read more »

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1990). — J.R.

TieMeUp

Pedro Almodovar’s poorly made 1990 follow-up to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown has an offensive premise and a pathetic, almost pleading desire to outrage our sensibilities with it. A 23-year-old simpleton (Antonio Banderas), released from a mental asylum where he’s lived for most of his life, kidnaps a small-time movie actress and junkie (Victoria Abril) he’s fallen for after a brief encounter during one of his many escapes from the institution. He firmly believes that in time she will return his affection, and — what do you know? — he proves to be absolutely right. If someone made an equivalent black comedy about a victim of racism falling in love with his or her oppressor, people would really be outraged, but I guess it’s OK if you’re simply trashing a trashy woman. There’s also a feeble subplot here about the actress’s director (Francisco Rabal) and sister (Loles Leon) that goes nowhere. The two lead characters are cardboard constructions, which sinks the film into tedium despite enough nudity to earn it an X rating. 111 min. (JR)

Tie_Me_Up_Tie_Me_Down

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PLACING MOVIES, Part 4: Provocations (Introduction)

This is the Introduction to the fourth section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R.

PlacingMovies

This is the most rebellious and contentious section of the book, and because of this, some readers will regard it as the least practical or viable. Before you make up your own mind about this, however, I’d like to ask you to examine precisely what you mean by “practical” and “viable.” Do you mean most likely to change the world, or do you mean most likely to affect the majority? If in fact you believe that the likeliest way to change the world is invariably to affect the majority, then it might be beneficial to look at that premise a little more closely and see if it always holds up.

Speaking from my own experience, the times when I’ve reached the greatest number of readers at once — writing features in the pages of magazines like Elle and Omni — are the times when my point of view has had the least amount of effect.… Read more »

PLACING MOVIES, Part 3: Filmmakers (Introduction)

This is the Introduction to the second section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site. — J.R. 

PlacingMovies

I should begin here with a somewhat embarrassed confession about a methodology I have employed with increasing frequency, especially since the mid-1980s — the practice of recycling certain elements from my earlier criticism. On a purely practical level, it can of course be argued that very few people who read me in, say, the Monthly Film Bulletin in 1974 are likely to be following my weekly columns in the Chicago Reader two decades later, and that my pieces for Soho News in 1980 (to cite another random example) are not likely to have survived in the periodical collections of many libraries. But I still blush to admit that, in a hatchet job I performed on Donald Richie’s book on Ozu for Sight and Sound in 1975, I sharply reproached Richie for reusing the same phrases about Ozu again and again in his own criticism. This was written at a relatively early stage in my own career when I imagined other film buffs like myself going to libraries and reading virtually everything in print on a given topic; I didn’t really think through the implications of writing about the same films and filmmakers for different audiences in separate countries over many decades — as Richie had certainly already done at that point, and as I have subsequently done.… Read more »

Bullet Ballet [PISTOL OPERA]

This appeared in the August 22, 2003 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Pistol Opera

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Seijun Suzuki

Written by Kazunori Ito and Takeo Kimura

With Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Masatoshi Nagase, Kan Hanae, Mikijiro Hira, Kirin Kiki, Haruko Kato, Yeong-he-Han, and Jan Woudstra.

Can I call a film a masterpiece without being sure that I understand it? I think so, since understanding is always relative and less than clear-cut. Look long enough at the apparent meaning of any conventional work — past the illusion of narrative continuity that persuades us to overlook anomalies, breaks, fissures, and other distractions we can’t process — and it usually becomes elusive. Yet it’s also true that we have different ways of comprehending meaning. I once watched some children listen to passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, possibly the most impenetrable book in the English language, and saw them burst into giggles, plainly understanding better than the adults that this was exactly the way grown-ups talked, only funnier.

I first saw Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera (2001) in early 2002, and half a year later I served on a jury at an Australian film festival that awarded the movie its top prize, calling it “a highly personal blend of traditional and experimental cinema.” I can’t think of another film I’ve seen since that has afforded me more unbridled sensual pleasure.… Read more »

OHAYO/GOOD MORNING (1975 review)

From the Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 502, November 1975. — J.R.

OHAYO (GOOD MORNING)

Japan, 1959

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Cert — U. dist — Cinegate. p.c — Shochiku/Ofuna. p — Shizuo Yamanouchi. sc — Yasujiro Ozu, Kogo Noda. ph — Yushun Atsuta. col — Agfacolor. ed —Yoshiyasu Hamamura. a.d —Tatsuo Hamada. m — Toshiro Mayuzumi. l.p — Chishu Ryu (Keitaro Hayashi), Kuniko Miyake (Tamiko Hayashi), Yoshiko Kuga (Setsuko Arita, Tamiko’s Sister), Koji Shidara (Minoru Hayashi, Older Son), Masahiko Shimazu (Isamu Hayashi, Younger Son), Keiji Sada (Heichiro Fukui, English Teacher), Haruo Tanaka (Pencil Salesman), Haruko Sugimura (Mrs. Haraguchi), Miyaguchi (Mr. Haraguchi), Eiko Miyoshi (Mrs. Haraguchi’s Mother), Eijiro Tono (Tomizawa), Teruko Nagoako (Tomizawa’s wife), Sadako Sawamura (Mrs. Okubu), Kyoko Izum and Hasabe (Couple with TV Set), Toyo Takahashi.… Read more »

PLACING MOVIES, Part 2: Touchstones (Introduction)

This is the Introduction to the second section of my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (University of California Press, 1993). I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few links to some of the pieces of mine mentioned here which appear on this web site.

My original title for this section of the book was “Masterpieces,” but the editor, Ed Dimendberg, who had a much better sense of what was academically acceptable than I did, got me to change it to “Touchstones”. For the record, I still think that “Masterpieces” is better. — J.R.

PlacingMovies

It seems to me that one of the most underrated elements in criticism is quite simply information — relevant facts deriving from research — and how this is imparted to the reader in relation to other elements. Thanks to the prestige of theory in academia and the equally valued role played by rhetoric in journalistic criticism, facts often seem to be held in relatively low esteem in critical writing nowadays, but as long as criticism aspires to be a vehicle for discovery, it seems to me that research should play a much larger role than it normally does. I bring this matter up because the value of the information imparted in all the pieces in this section seems to me  inextricably tied to what I have to say about these films, and my analyses would be appreciably different without it — a factor that is probably most obvious when it comes to GERTRUD and OTHELLO.*

________________________________________________________________ *The review of the latter film — like the separate Welles essay in the next section — represents one of the many “spinoffs” of the long-term research that went into editing This Is Orson Welles by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich (HarperCollins, 1992).… Read more »

Oporto Of My Childhood

From the Chicago Reader (March 21, 2003). — J.R.

Porto_of_my_Childhood_2

Porto...

Manoel de Oliveira’s 2001 masterpiece explores the Portuguese city where he’s lived for more than 90 years, though it concentrates on the first 30 or so. It’s remarkable for its effortless freedom and grace in passing between past and present, fiction and nonfiction, staged performance and archival footage (including clips from two of his earliest films, Hard Work on the River Douro and Aniki-Bobo) while integrating and sometimes even synthesizing these modes. He’s mainly interested in key images, music, and locations from the Eden of his privileged youth, and some of the film’s songs are performed by him or his wife — though we also get a fully orchestrated version of Emmanuel Nunes’s Nachtmusik 1. In Portuguese with subtitles. 61 min. (JR)

porto

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Orson Welles’s Essay Films and Documentary Fictions: A Two-Part Speculation

From Cinematograph, vol. 4, 1991; reprinted in both Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism and Discovering Orson Welles. — J.R.

AboutFakes

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theatre meaning: when it becomes a social act.

– Orson Welles, quoted in Collier’s, 29 January 1938

Two propositions:

1. One of the most progressive forms of cinema is the film in which fiction and nonfiction merge, trade places, become interchangeable.

2. One of the most reactionary forms of cinema is the film in which fiction and nonfiction merge, trade places, become interchangeable.

How can both of these statements be true — as, in fact, I believe they are? In the final analysis, the issue is an ethical one. In support of 2, there are docudramas that use spurious means to grant bogus authenticity to fiction (MISSISSIPPI BURNING is a good example), and documentaries that employ fictional devices in order to lie more effectively (e.g., the studio retakes in Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, which are well documented in Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich).Read more »

Once It Was Fire: Introduction to a Straub-Huillet Retrospective (1982)

I’m sorry to say that the last complete retrospective in the U.S. devoted to Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet was held over thirty years ago, on November 2-14, 1982, at New York’s Public Theater. (An upcoming touring show is reportedly in the works, but I don’t yet know whether or not this will include a complete retrospective anywhere.) I curated the 1982 event, which also included a selection of films by others made by Jean-Marie and Danièle to play with their own. For the occasion, I also edited a 20-page, tabloid-sized catalogue, long out of print, and what follows are (1) the full program as planned and (2) my introduction. Regarding (1), I recall now that there was one last-minute addition, their recently completed short film En rachâchant (see second photograph below), as well as some last-minute omissions or substitutions that are noted in the text below. Regarding (2), I should emphasize that a lot has changed and developed over the past three decades, both in myself and in Straub-Huillet’s work –- in both cases, I’d like to think, for the better. — J.R.

The Cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet
November 2-14, 1982

Nov. 2: MACHORKA-MUFF (1963)

NICHT VERSÖHNT (NOT RECONCILED, 1965)

plus ANTONIO DAS MORTES (Glauber Rocha, 1969)

Nov.Read more »